My dining table was covered with kitchen appliances, books, and clothes. Large Ziploc bags filled with Beanie Babies adorned one corner, while serving dishes I never used were stacked on another. Throughout the day, the piles continued to grow, and eventually, they spread onto the floor under and around the table. The room became organized chaos fraught with emotion as I started letting go of my stuff.
I wasn’t doing this because the ever-adorable Marie Kondo was making me reevaluate my materialistic ways or accept that I needed to let go of items whose only purpose was sentimental value. I was finally moving to the big city and I needed money. And so I was purging my house of everything that I could live without for a few months, everything that could get me a few bucks, everything that I didn’t have room for in my new, tiny apartment.
And it did not bring me joy.
The problem with Tidying Up is that it revolves around the lives of upper-middle-class Americans who simply have too much stuff. Therefore, the KonMari method relies upon the assumption that Americans are simply so materialistic that they accumulate stuff they don’t need, and “tidying up” is essentially synonymous with decluttering.
The show, based on Kondo’s bestselling books, lingers on people’s tears as they let go of baby clothes and toys or as they part with trinkets that they associate with some long-ago event. It portrays families who have the money to pay someone to tidy their life, but who simply can’t bring themselves to part with stuff.
Marie never visits families who have to sell their belongings to buy groceries. She never visits houses where there is only one closet. She never sees children who are stuck wearing old clothes because their parents can’t afford new ones.
I get it — those episodes would be depressing to watch. Yet Tidying Up has the potential to help struggling families who can’t afford a maid understand the tips and tricks of organization. It simply chooses not to speak to them. Instead, the very first episode features a family with a stay-at-home mom who has the help of a housekeeper. Their main problem is that while they’ve stored stuff efficiently, they want to learn to “have fun tidying.” Fine. But the show never addresses the elephant in the room: that they’re already at a great advantage to “tidy up.” Of course it’s “fun” when you have paid help to do the heavy lifting.
Marie’s clients are people who could easily address their clutter issues, who are victims of their disposable income rather than circumstances.
As I watched episode after episode in which Marie instructs families to process enormous stacks of clothing and books and asks them to keep only the ones that “spark joy,” I started to miss some of the things I’d had to sell. My mountain bike had sparked joy, but I had to sell it when I got laid off. I’d collected hundreds of books over the years and spent many wonderful hours with them. I’d sold them to a secondhand store to be able to afford dinner. I’d lost myself in my gaze at my saltwater aquarium, in which I’d carefully nourished a little ecosystem. It all had to be sold back to the fish store when we moved.
I also thought about where I’d gotten the vast majority of my stuff: the local secondhand shops where I’d had to sift through hundreds of shirts before finding one that was suitable for work. Obviously, this shirt did not spark joy for its original owner. I guess I do appreciate the KonMari method for funneling items into shops where impoverished writers could afford them.
I wondered what it would be like to be plagued with the simple problem of too much stuff, to only have to worry about where to put things rather than have to sell your few nice clothing items to Plato’s Closet. Or turn in your PlayStation to GameStop. Or pawn your treadmill. All so that you can afford one week’s worth of food, entertain yourself with the remains of your DVD collection, and wear sweatpants you bought ten years ago at Goodwill. Meanwhile, you don’t have time to organize the few things you weren’t able to sell because you have to work multiple jobs.
Tidying Up doesn’t tell those stories. It doesn’t offer solutions for people who are struggling to scrape by even though they’ve sold everything of value. And those people often don’t have much to get rid of to begin with, and they certainly can’t afford overpriced “storage solutions” to bring order to their households. (Seriously, go to the Container Store and look at their prices.)
After the last Craigslist customers had come by and my dining table was finally cleared, I felt deflated, not joyous. Gone was the charming serving platter my mother had given me. Gone were the crisp paperbacks I’d hadn’t yet read. Gone was my juicer and all the recipes I’d had in mind to try to be healthier.
Now that I’ve finished squeezing into my new apartment, I’ve learned a few organization hacks that suit starving artists — or anyone, for that matter. I may not be tidy, but I’m resourceful. Where’s my Netflix show?
Repurpose. I have pencils in old mugs, makeup in old baskets, shoes in an old wine rack, and craft supplies in an old spice caddy. You can use toilet paper tubes to organize cords, old (clean!) salsa jars to sort jewelry, and shoeboxes to store just about anything.
Use bins to organize. Rather than waste your precious money on overpriced plastic-and-metal contraptions, grab some inexpensive plastic bins to group similar foods in your pantry, hold papers, or even sort socks. As I mentioned above, you can also get some baskets from a thrift shop and use those for your storage needs.
Install hooks. To get things off the floor and save space, go vertical. You can get various types of hooks that are easy to install. Hang up bags, belts, ties, umbrellas, necklaces, hats…the list goes on. It’s an easy and cheap way to tidy up!
My tidying journey has been one born of sacrifice, and my organizational skills were forged in strife, not fun tidying parties. I still have things that don’t spark joy that I have out of sheer necessity. And I’d love to have someone come and help convince me to let go of the sentimental items that do nothing but gather dust. But right now, even if they don’t bring me joy, they bring me comfort. And that’s something that a future version of KonMari might want to consider.